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Gathering to celebrate the mom not talked about for 50 years

August 18, 2018

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Her children talk about the pelicans, how they glided overhead as the singer finished the song.

“Remember me” — the last lyric — faded with the evening sun on a Hilton Head Island beach.

The birds’ flight seemed preordained, part of the day’s events.

Margie Kemper’s kids, grown now, had gathered at Shipyard Plantation after an afternoon of cocktails, hors d’eouvres and a catered dinner on July 22 — 50 years after her death — to celebrate her life and to reconstruct memories of the mother they’d hardly known.

Margie was 32 when the cancer took her on May 19, 1968, in New York. She had five children — the youngest 2, the oldest 7 — who were suddenly trying to make sense of something that rarely makes sense to adults.

Grown-ups are supposed to have answers, but death — especially the gone-too-soon kind — leaves everyone with questions.

And everyone grieves in their own way.

The Kempers and their relatives tried to cope with Margie’s death by avoiding the matter — and not talking about her — for five decades, according to family members.

Margie’s sister, Betsy Corcoran, recently recalled how their parents had earlier lost another child, then a grandchild, and how Margie’s death was too painful to acknowledge.

“This was the killer for both my parents,” said Corcoran, 20 years old when Margie died. “It just totally destroyed them — they weren’t the same after that. You just didn’t want to talk about it.”

Bitsy Kemper, just 2 when she lost her mother, would later uncover a family story about a doctor who’d advised the Kempers to not speak of Margie, to remove her pictures, clothing and any other reminders from their home — “because it would be easier for the children.”

Back then, in that era, you didn’t question doctors, Bitsy said. And whether this explains why they rarely talked about their mother, the fact remains that, over the years, they rarely did.

“I absolutely think that my dad and my relatives had our best interest at heart,” Bitsy said. “I truly think they did this with the best of intentions, thinking it would work out at the end.”

Benny Kemper — Bitsy’s dad, Margie’s husband, who now lives on Hilton Head — remembers feeling pressure to be strong, to not show weakness.

“The kids” he said, “never had a period to mourn.”

Last year, as Bitsy and her siblings eased into a discussion about an event to honor Margie’s memory, she was nervous.

Would people care? she wondered.

Would they come?

Would they be ready?

Would 50 years be enough time to heal, to remember?

Margie Kemper enjoyed gardening — she planted a strawberry patch at the family’s Long Island home shortly before she died.

She was a devout Catholic, teaching Corcoran how to say the rosary, instructing her on the stations of the cross.

She was generous: Benny’s fraternity brother, Ken Gibbs, recalled she was quick to take in his girlfriend, who’d hopped the train to visit him at Clarkson University.

″(Margie) lived ... right behind the fraternity house,” Gibbs said, explaining she attended nearby Potsdam State. “I had a girlfriend and I invited her up for a big weekend, but I didn’t know what in the world to do with her. I hooked her up with Margie and Margie took care of her — she took this little out-of-town girl and took such nice care of her.”

Margie was an honor student. She was cute. Petite. A fifth-grade and, later, substitute teacher. A wife. A mother.

And she was sick.

For two years.

She was prescribed experimental forms of chemotherapy. She lost weight, her hair.

But, according to Benny, she did everything she could to maintain the appearance of normalcy for her kids.

She had trouble resting toward the end, Benny said. It was hard for her to get comfortable. Sometimes she would cry out in her sleep and awaken, only to assure everyone it was just a bad dream.

Once, the kids heard her wake up, Benny said. They ran into her room and started jumping on the bed, happy to see her.

His first instinct was to tell them to stop, that their mother needed her rest.

But Margie looked at him and said, gently, it’s OK.

As the Kemper kids began planning their mother’s 50-year remembrance, they were unsure how Benny would respond.

The event would be a celebration but would also unearth painful, if beautiful, memories.

George Kemper — Margie’s middle child, just 5 in 1968 — said he and his dad visited their old Long Island home a few years after she passed. They’d moved elsewhere and began renting out that house, he said, and they’d returned to check on it and make repairs.

“It was just the two of us,” George said, “and we went in the backyard and the strawberry patch was long gone — people mowing it just like a golf course. And we looked down ... and there was this giant, wild, ripe strawberry. We picked it up, and it brought my dad to his knees.”

It was the first time he saw his dad get emotional, George said.

Geri Villero, 4 when her mother died, said she visited her father when he first moved to Hilton Head in 2012. Benny had some old friends over, and the conversation drifted back to their college days.

“I came here with my daughter,and me and my daughter were sitting,” Geri said, “and my dad talked more about my mom ... with his college friends than he had my whole life. ... I loved it. Because I could see there was a true relationship. It was hard for him, but it was nice. I was glad to be a part of that moment.”

Shortly after her mother’s death, Geri found her parents’ wedding album. She would sneak peeks at it, but it was soon taken away, hidden somewhere.

She remembers how “everything at school was mom-oriented.” Show your mother your report card, teachers would tell students — Give this permission slip to your mother. And later, as a sixth-grader, she found a box that held Mass cards from Margie’s funeral — she didn’t tell anyone.

“It’s one of those things where you say, ’50 years — how did it take that long?’” Geri said of the remembrance event. “But I don’t think, 25 years ago, any of us could have done this, because we never talked about it.”

Carolyn Kemper — Margie’s oldest daughter — said Benny would take her and her siblings to the hospital to see their mom, even though, back then, children weren’t allowed in.

“So, he would take us to the hospital,” Carolyn said, “and she would wave at us (on the street) through the window and he would ask us to sing to her, or something.”

“I had no idea death was even on the table,” she said. “But I didn’t know death — I don’t think we’d even had a cat that died, or anything like that.”

Carolyn eventually became a mother to her siblings, according to Bitsy — “I always say she raised five kids, including herself.”

And the family had help from relatives and friends, George said — “It wasn’t a solo act.”

Benny made sure the kids stuck together; if they went somewhere, they traveled as a “set” of five.

And later, as adults, they ventured west, one by one, to California, where four of them still live — Chris, the oldest, had to move with his job to Raleigh, North Carolina, and he has a place in Shipyard, on Hilton Head.

As his mother’s remembrance event neared, Chris realized the effect she’d had on many of Benny’s college friends.

The Kemper kids sent out invitations in the spring, and a lot of people said they couldn’t come — but they offered something else.

″‘We can’t make it,’” Chris said, mimicking the RSVPs. ”‘But we knew your mother, we loved your mother — here’s a story about your mother and father.’”

The celebration of Margie Kemper’s life on Hilton Head had somber moments rooted in 50 years of grief, but it was also a party.

The “Margie-rita” was the featured drink.

“Feel free to duck out and hit the beach at any time!” said a line in the program Bitsy designed for the occasion.

Attendees got champagne glasses; tied to their stems were small hearts, embedded with strawberry seeds.

And about 50 people showed up. College friends and family friends. Cousins, aunts and uncles. Brothers and sisters.

Pictures of Margie — at her wedding, at the beach, with Benny, always smiling — filled the Shipyard Plantation Beach Club.

There were hard cries and hard laughs.

“She had a marvelous laugh,” said Benny, who surprised some by giving a speech at the party.

“And I think now, (my kids have) finally had their chance to grieve, using that word in general — I don’t mean sit here and sob,” Benny said, “but to reflect: ‘Hey, that was a good lady — whatever happened to her?’”

That day, as the sun faded above Hilton Head’s sands and a singer crooned “Remember Me,” the pelicans glided overhead.

It was a flight of common shore birds, unremarkable to most people on the beach.

For the Kemper family,it was a moment.

A new memory of Margie.

One they will talk about.

___

Information from: The Island Packet, http://www.islandpacket.com

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